Pluralistic: Kitchensink callithump linkdump (29 Jun 2024)

Today's links

A mix of unsorted sediments, labeled 'Tholeiitic basalt dike & peperite & basaltic lapillistone in the Precambrian of Ontario, Canada.'

Kitchensink callithump linkdump (permalink)

With just days to go before my summer vacation, I find myself once again with a backlog of links that I didn't squeeze into the blog, and no hope of clearing them before I disappear into a hammock for two weeks, so it's time for my 21st linkdump – here's the other 20:

I'm going to start off this week's 'dump with a little bragging, because it's my newsletter, after all. First up: a book! Yes, I write a lot of books, but what I'm talking about here is a physical book, a limited edition of ten, that I commissioned from three brilliant craftspeople.

Back in March 2023, I launched a Kickstarter to pre-sell the audiobook of Red Team Blues, the first novel in my new Martin Hench series, about a forensic accountant who specializes in unwinding tech bros' finance frauds:

One of the rewards for that campaign was a very special hardcover: a handmade, leather-bound edition of Red Team Blues, typeset by the typography legend John D. Berry:

Bound by the legendary book-artist John DeMerritt:

And printed by the master printer JaVae Berry:

But this wasn't a merely beautiful, well made book – it had a gimmick. You see, I had already completed the first draft of The Bezzle, the second Hench novel, by the time I launched the Kickstarter for Red Team Blues. I had John Berry lay out a tiny edition of that early draft as a quarter-sized book, and then John DeMerritt hand-bound it in card.

The reason that edition of The Bezzle had to be so small was that it was designed to slip into a hollow cavity in the hardcover, a cavity that John Berry had designed the type around, so that both books could be read and enjoyed.

I offered three of these for sale through the Kickstarter, and the three backers were very patient as the team went back and forth on the book, getting everything perfect. Last month, I took delivery of the books: three for my backers, one each for John DeMerritt and John Berry's personal archives, one for me, and a few more that I'm going to surprise some very special people with this Christmas.

Look, I had high hopes for this book. I dote on beautiful books, my house is busting with them, and I used to work at a new/used science fiction store where we had a small but heartstoppingly great rare book selection. But these books are fucking astounding. Every time I handle mine, my heart races. These are beautiful things, and I just want to show them to everyone:

As it happens, the next thing I'm going to do (after I finish this newsletter) is turn in the copyedited manuscript for the third Hench novel, Picks and Shovels, which comes out in Feb 2025 (luckily, I had enough time to review the edits myself, then turn it over to my mom, who has proofed every book I've written and always catches typos that everyone else misses, including some real howlers – thanks Mom!):

Of course, the majority of people who enjoy my books do not end up with one of these beautiful hardcovers – indeed, many of you consume my work exclusively as electronic media: ebooks and (of course) audiobooks. I love audiobooks and the audio editions of my books are very good, with narrators like Amber Benson, Wil Wheaton, and Neil Gaiman.

But here's the thing: Audible refuses to carry my books, because they are DRM-free (which means that they aren't locked to Audible's approved players – you can play my audiobooks with any audiobook player). Audible has a no-exceptions, iron-clad rule that every book they sell must be permanently locked into their platform, which means that Audible customers can't ditch their Audible software without losing their libraries – all the books they purchased:

Being excluded from Audible takes a huge bite out of my income – after all, they're a monopolist with a 90% market share. That's why I'm so grateful for indie audiobook stores that carry my books on equitable terms that Audible denies – stores like, Downpour and even Google Books.

This week, I discovered a new, amazing indie audiobook store called Storyfair, where the books are DRM-free and the authors get a 75% royalty on every sale:

Storyfair is a labor of love created by a married couple who were sickened and furious by the way that Audible screws authors and listeners and decided to do something about it. Naturally, I uploaded my whole catalog to the site so they could sell it:

These books are DRM-free, which means that no matter who you buy them from, you can play them in the same player as your other DRM-free audiobooks. You know how you can read all your books under the same lamp, sitting in the same chair, and then put them in the same bookcase when you're done with them? It's weird – outrageous even! – that tech companies think that buying a book from them means that they should have the legal right to force you to read or listen to it using their technology exclusively.

If you let your Storyfair audiobooks touch your audiobooks, they won't get cooties! Audible is like a toddler that won't let their broccoli touch their peas – only that toddler is also a rapacious monopolist that keeps 75% of every sale.

The fight for fair audiobooks is one of those places where the different parts of my professional life cross over: activism, digital media, art, writing the web, and breaking down complex technical subjects for a mass audience. I've just signed up to a six-year project to combine all those facets in a structured way, in collaboration with Cornell University.

Cornell just named me as their latest AD White Professor-at-Large. This is a six-year appointment that involves a series of week-long visits to Ithaca to lecture, run seminars, meet with colleagues, collaborate on research, and do community performances:

We've tentatively scheduled my first visit for early September 2025, to coincide with the Ithaca Book Festival, and we've got big plans, roping in multiple departments at Cornell, the local alternative school and local colleges, doing talks at the fair as well as at the university, and (we hope!) squeezing in a stop in NYC on the way home for a day at Cornell Tech. I'm so excited (and honored) to be working with Cornell (and getting a chance to visit Moosewood Restaurant, whose cookbooks taught me how to cook!). Watch this space.

Authorship has always been a political act, but never moreso than today, with waves of book-bans sweeping the country. One of the heroes of those bans is Maggie Tokuda-Hall, who made headlines when she publicly excoriated Scholastic for demanding that she remove references to racism from her kids' books in order to make them more palatable to reactionaries:

Tokuda-Hall has stepped up the fight, co-founding Authors Against Book Bans, an org that provides training and support for author/activists so they can fight back against book bans at library board and city council meetings:

Authors Against Book bans is looking for members! I signed up last week, within seconds of having Tokuda-Hall give me the pitch when we ran into each other in Oakland at the Locus Awards. Are you an author? Sign up too! They're especially interested in branching out beyond YA and kids' authors (though they want those kinds of writers, too!).

Book bans affect us all. Even if you, personally, are never stymied when you visit your library and discover the book that you want to read has been removed by a swivel-eyed loon with terminal groomer-panic. The bans sweeping our country mean that our neighbors and loved ones are being denied literature by these cranks. There are people in your life who are losing out on the possibility of a life-changing literary adventure (which is why the far right hates these books – they want to be sure no one encounters the ideas between their covers).

The realization that you have to live in a society with people who are harmed by injustice, even if you personally escape that justice? It's the whole basis for solidarity.

Americans are living through a multigenerational project of stamping out solidarity and insisting that we only ever view ourselves as individuals, with no stake in the plights of our neighbors. That's how the US got the most expensive, least effective health care system in the world. And even if you are in the vanishingly tiny minority of Americans who are happy with their health care, you live amongst people who are being killed by the system around you.

The health system is a perfect example of how monopolization drives more monopolization, and how that comes to harm the public and workers. Health consolidation began with pharma mergers, that led to pharma companies gouging hospitals. Hospitals, in turn, engaged in a nonstop orgy of mergers, which created regional monopolies that could resist the pricing power of monopoly pharma – and screw insurers. That kicked off consolidation in insurance, which is why most Americans have a "choice" of between one and three private insurers – and why health workers' monopoly employers have eroded their wages and working conditions.

A new study in American Economic Review: Insights puts some quantitative spine in this tale, tracking the relationship between hospital mergers and skyrocketed health-care prices:

The researchers investigated 1,164 acute-care hospital mergers, finding that while the FTC only challenged 1% of these, they could – and should – have challenged 20% of them, based on the agency's own criteria for merger scrutiny. The researchers blame the rising costs of hospital care directly on these mergers, and point out that Congress has historically starved the FTC of the budget it needed to investigate these mergers. The annual additional costs to the American people from these mergers exceed the entire annual budget of the FTC.

It's not just hospitals: the entire investor class is hell-bent on spending their way to monopoly. Nowhere is that more true than in AI, where hundreds of billions are being poured into bids to attain permanent dominance through scale. Writing for their excellent AI Snake Oil newsletter, Arvind Narayanan and Sayash Kapoor inject some realism into the AI scale hype:

Narayanan and Kapoor challenge the idea that throwing more data at large language models will make them better: "With LLMs, we may have a couple of orders of magnitude of scaling left, or we may already be done." They are skeptical that this can be fixed with synthetic data (whose use is limited to "fixing specific gaps and making domain-specific improvements"). They also point out that if returns from data slow, then returns from adding more compute or making bigger models might also be throttled.

They reserve their most skeptical take for "AGI" – the idea that LLMs are going to achieve consciousness. This is a fundamentally unserious idea, one that they unpack in detail in their forthcoming book:

One thing I'm hoping for from the book is some analysis of the material usefulness of AI hype – what purpose does the hype serve? I mean, obviously, hype is useful if you're looking to suck up investor capital, or flip an investment to a greater fool. But there's a specific character to AI hype: namely, the claim that AI will displace labor, which is really a claim that a bet on AI is a bet on the increasing wealth of capital at labor's expense.

In other words, AI is a bet on oligarchy. In America, that's a pretty safe bet, and the odds just got even better, thanks to a string of brutal Supreme Court decisions that legalized bribery, banned most regulatory enforcement, and made being alive and unhoused into a crime (Poor Laws 2.0):

But amidst all those gimmes to the rich and powerful, there was one notable exception: the SCOTUS ruling on the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy. Purdue was the family business of the Sacklers, a multigenerational dope-peddling dynasty that went from super-rich to stratospherically rich by kickstarting the opioid epidemic with their blockbuster drug Oxycontin.

The Sacklers sold mountains of Oxy the old fashioned way: by lying. They lied about its efficacy and they lied about its safety, and they helped kill hundreds of thousands of Americans. Eventually, this caught up with them, and Purdue lost a bunch of court cases and was forced into bankruptcy.

That's where things get gnarly: the Sacklers took the already-sleazy world of elite bankruptcy to a whole new level, with a set of breathtakingly sleazy maneuvers that ensured that their case would be heard by the one judge in America who would let them off the hook:

That judge was Robert Drain and the Sacklers were the blow-off to a long and shameful career in public "service." The Sacklers incorporated a subsidiary in White Plains, NY (in Drain's turf) precisely 181 days before filing for bankruptcy, then claimed that this empty small-town office had been the company HQ for more than six months. Then they hid machine-readable metadata in their filing that tricked the court's database into assigning the case to Drain:

The reason the Sacklers were so horny for Drain? He was a notoriously generous source of "nonconsensual third-party releases." These would allow the Sacklers to permanently end every lawsuit against them without having to declare bankruptcy. Instead, they could take their (ruined, hollow) company through bankruptcy, throw a small fraction of their personal fortunes into the pot, representing fractional pennies on the dollar of what they owed to their victims, and walk away with tens of billions and eternal protection from any future suits.

In other words, they could stiff their creditors and keep the loot. Which is exactly what Robert Drain gave them – before retiring from the bench to get a two-orders-of-magnitude pay raise at a white-shoe firm that specializes in representing corporate mass-murderers like the Sacklers.

That's where it would have ended, but for a surprising ruling from the Supreme Court, which threw out the nonconsensual third-party release deal and put the Sacklers back on the hook to pay the victims of their many, many crimes.

As ever, the best source of analysis and explanation for elite bankruptcy shenanigans is Adam Levitin of the Credit Slips blog:

Levitin has a prediction for what's going to happen next. He rejects the predictions of Sackler apologists, who say that this is going to add years or decades to the already too-long wait for compensation that the Sacklers' victims have endured. Instead, Levitin says that the Sacklers will almost certainly transfer billions more from their personal fortunes to the settlement pot and beg for consensual releases from their victims. In other words, they'll go from dictating terms to asking for them.

So the settlement will stand, but it will be larger, and victims who don't want to take it won't have to – they'll be able to sue. In other words, this ruling "does not prevent deals in bankruptcy. It just changes the terms of what those deals."

This has implications for other mass-murderers and corporate criminals, like Johnson and Johnson (who tricked women into dusting their vulvas with asbestos):

And the Boy Scouts of America, who let pedophiles abuse children for decades:

Both J&J and BSA carved out nonconsensual third-party releases in the mold of the Sacklers' deal, and both briefed the Supreme Court, warning that if the Sacklers were forced to pay what they owed, J&J and BSA's victims would also be entitled to far larger sums. Go ahead and threaten us with a good time, why doncha?

The Sackler decision is a real bright spot at a dark time for corporate impunity. It's always nice to see big corporate bullies getting a bit of a comeuppance. Another one of those comeuppances was just delivered thanks to a classic fatfinger error.

A Microsoft engineer accidentally released the sourcecode to Playready, the company's flagship DRM product:

Microsoft's DRM doesn't do anything to protect the interests of creative workers or even the companies that employ them. As a Microsoft rep admitted on stage at a presentation in 2006, the purpose of Microsoft DRM is to prevent small startups from entering the market, ensuring that Microsoft and its "rivals" can safely divide up the world without worrying about disruptive competitors:

I was there that day and reported on the remarks, prompting both Microsoft and its rep to furiously deny that they'd ever said this, despite multiple witnesses who heard it. This was just a couple years after I gave a viral talk at Microsoft about why the company shouldn't use DRM:

By 2006, it was clear that the company was all in on DRM, and today, DRM is the centerpiece of Microsoft's anticompetitive strategy, and Playready is the centerpiece of Microsoft's DRM. The source-code leak is doubtless going to give rise to lots of grey-market tools for stripping DRM from all kinds of media:

You love to see it! Now I'm doubly looking forward to this summer's security conferences, including Defcon, where, for the first time, I'll be emceeing the charity poker tournament to benefit EFF:

This should be very fun – and funny – especially given how little I know about poker (I have been specifically selected on that basis, for the comedy value). Every player gets a custom EFF poker-deck, and the winner gets a treasure chest filled by EFF board member Tarah Wheeler, including "emeralds, black pearls, amethysts, diamonds, and more."

I like to close these linkdumps with something fun and uplifting, and I'd planned to end things with the poker-tournament, but then my pal Raph Koster announced that his game studio Playable Worlds had dropped its first announcement of Stars Reach, an open-world MMO like no other:

Raph is a legend in MMO design circles, whose credits include Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. He wrote the definitive text on how games work, A Theory of Fun, that does for games what Understanding Comics did for comics:

Stars Reach is stupidly ambitious. It consists of truly open worlds, modeled to an absurd degree of fidelity:

We know the temperature, the humidity, the materials, for every cubic meter of every planet. Our water actually flows downhill and puddles. It freezes overnight or during the winter. It evaporates and turns to steam when heated up. And not just our water — everything does this. Catch a tree on fire with a stray blaster bolt. Melt your way through a glacier to find a hidden alien laboratory embedded in the ice. Stomp too hard on a rock bridge, and watch out, it might collapse under your feet. Dam up a river to irrigate your farm. Or float in space above an asteroid, and mine crystals from its depths.

The game is fundamentally a climate story, whose lore has humanity seeded around the galaxy by a powerful alien race called the Old Ones, only to have humans bust through the planetary limits of every world they were given. Now the Old Ones are giving humans another chance to try smarter ways of sustaining ourselves on new worlds, with the aid of powerful robots call "Servitors."

Because this is a Raph Koster game, it's got a bunch of extremely satisfying play dynamics:

  • A classless skill tree advancement system, where peaceful play matters just as much as combat

  • An intricate player-driven economy where players can craft their way to fame and fortune

  • An accessible yet deep combat system, where you can choose whether to play using action aiming or more forgiving homing shots or lock-on targeting

  • In-world player housing that lets you build and customize your home and form towns… and enough room for everyone to have a house

  • A single shardless galaxy, with both space and ground gameplay… in fact, you can build that house on an asteroid, if you want

  • The ability for a group to govern a planet, and define its laws, whether you want a peaceful home or a PvP free for all

Stars Reach is not playable yet, but the company's looking for gamers to give them feedback and steer the development:

OK, that wraps up the week's links. I'm gonna get one more edition out on Monday, god willin' and the crick don't rise, and then I'll be off for a couple weeks. Enjoy your summer!

(Image: James St John, CC BY 2.0)

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This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago BBC affirms Creative Archive in Charter Renewal plans

#20yrsago How Free Software won the hearts of hackers, capitalists, commies and academics

#20yrsago Toaster oven casemod

#15yrsago Automated shakedown racket sends legal threats, demands cash,/a>

#15yrsago Honduran coup is the first successful military coup d’etat in the region since the Cold War ended

#10yrsago Aaron Swartz documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy, out today

#10yrsago Horror movies and the Haunted Mansion

#5yrsago Felony Contempt of Business Model: Lexmark’s anti-competitive legacy

#5yrsago Three Halflings in a Trenchcoat: a homebrew fighter class for D&D

#5yrsago Microsoft is about to shut off its ebook DRM servers: “The books will stop working”

#5yrsago Improving Q&As with peer-review

#5yrsago Howto: stay civil while discussing the children in America’s concentration camps

#5yrsago Rage Inside the Machine: an insightful, brilliant critique of AI’s computer science, sociology, philosophy and economics

Upcoming appearances (permalink)

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Recent appearances (permalink)

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Latest books (permalink)

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Upcoming books (permalink)

  • Picks and Shovels: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about the heroic era of the PC, Tor Books, February 2025

  • Unauthorized Bread: a middle-grades graphic novel adapted from my novella about refugees, toasters and DRM, FirstSecond, 2025

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Raph Koster, Nancy Proctor, Claudia Knight, Maggie Tokuda-Hall, Slashdot.

Currently writing:

  • Enshittification: a nonfiction book about platform decay. Friday's progress: 838 words (20090 words total).

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

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